Clockwork: or All Wound Up (1996) is a very short (about 100 pages) children’s fairytale by Philip Pullman. It stars Karl and Fritz, two young Germans who have not finished a job that they were supposed to do and are worried about what will happen when the townspeople find out. Karl and Fritz meet one snowy evening in the local tavern. Karl, the clockmaker’s apprentice, is brooding because tomorrow is the day when he must unveil the mechanical project he’s supposed to have finished. For hundreds of years, each apprentice has contributed an exquisite clockwork figure to the town’s clock and everyone gathers on graduation day to admire it in the town square. Karl confesses to Fritz that he has not created anything.
Fritz, a writer, tells Karl that authors also have trouble creating content on demand. In fact, Fritz is in the tavern to tell a story to the eager townsfolk, but he has not yet written the ending and has no idea how to wrap up his story. But he’s not worried; he plans to just make it all up when he gets there. (As the narrator explains, Fritz is an optimist and Karl is a pessimist, and that makes all the difference.)
And so Fritz starts telling his story, which is a scary little tale about a clockwork prince. Just as Fritz gets to the part where he doesn’t know what comes next and has to start making things up, the sinister villain from the story walks into the tavern! From there, the story takes on a life of its own and suddenly those who were listening become the actors.
I loved this clever little story with its snowy winter setting and its echoes of Faust and Pinocchio. As suggested by its title, the plot fits together tightly like the gears in a clock, and it’s constantly twisting and turning as the story plays out. It’s convoluted, creepy, and suspenseful enough to please adults as well as children. There are a few subtle encouragements for children, such as to not procrastinate, to be optimistic, to work hard, to not be afraid to fail, to always finish a story and, most important of all, to always be polite to a cat.
I listened to the audiobook version of Clockwork that was produced by Audible Studios. It’s only 1.5 hours long and beautifully read by Anton Lesser. I can highly recommend this version, but you might also want to take a look at a print version, because there are some wonderful illustrations.